This article was first published in 2012. It is the only article on our site that never requires updating.
On my 25-year journey in the music business, I have learned a lot of interesting things. One huge realization I had about the current music industry came to me as I was building this website (and continued as I started to get contacted by musicians that were visiting it). I couldn’t figure out why many people were glossing over all of the foundational work that is usually required to find great help. Why would people be so divorced from all the work that they have to do on their own, all the time they needed to devote to developing their sound and playing shows? Why would they not accept the real character-building shows, the “don’t forget to tip your bartenders and wai…oh you are the bartenders and waitresses” shows? And why would musicians think that an executive was likely to jump in and partner with them when what they had, at least on paper, was a hobby and not a real business?
For some, a light bulb turns on when they come to a realization. I experienced something a bit more substantial.
I was watching something on the Science channel about the planets, and an astronomer was talking about an asteroid hitting the earth. He said, “There has been more money spent on movies about asteroids hitting the earth than money spent on preventing asteroids from hitting the earth.”
Since then I have never looked at media – the field I’ve been in my whole life – in the same way.
Some of the effects the media has on us are well documented, but studies usually focus on questions like “Does violence in media have an impact on violent behavior in real life?” or “Does the media portrayal of rail-thin models and celebrities impact our feelings about our own body image and confidence?” The latter in particular is interesting and more applicable, because almost all studies on the subject point to the reality that people feel bad about themselves when comparing themselves to media ideals and have unrealistic expectations about what a “normal” person should look like. Essentially, people believe that they are supposed to resemble what they see in mass media.
When I thought about this concept, I wondered, could there also be a message in mass media about musicians and their success and does that affect us? It kept occurring to me that the media was minimizing the work that goes in to most musicians’ stories. I decided it was time to do some research myself.
To me, the definitive chronicle of a musician’s story is VH1’s Behind the Music. I decided since that was such a well known representation of how musicians became successful that it was a good idea to look at what was kind of info was being presented there.
I purchased several stop-watches and began to time out the percentages of the show that were devoted to different parts of an artist’s story (removing the commercials, etc). I watched a dozen episodes. It wasn’t hard to get the timing down because Behind the Music falls into a very familiar pattern:
1) Family background. The format is always, “Mom says her musician/superstar was different from other kids or recounts how hard it was growing up in the ‘hood, or how someone in the family was abused, and how these circumstances influenced their drive to be an artist, etc.”
2) Professional Struggle. This segment of the show highlights artists’ first taste of the business, the “struggle,” how they lived on $50 / week, how their choice to do something so unreasonable for a living upset family and friends alike. This phase covers making demos and meeting other musicians and executives. I even counted getting signed as getting part of the struggle, even though the momentum of the show clearly indicates that the record deal is a clear sign that success is around the corner.
3) Success. There is always a moment in Behind the Music where the album comes out, and the artist becomes a huge celebrity by creating a genre changing piece of work or a huge commercial success. And the documentary never looks back after that point. The term “big break” is also used a great deal. Sure, there are some issues, like drug habits, divorces, stress and inner turmoil, but the coverage from this point on is always the artist as a total success, even if there were hills and valleys in their popularity.
Would hearing partial truths affect our expectations and perception of what is fact? Simply put: Yes. Markus Appel and Tobias Richter’s study “Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives increase over time” even demonstrated that people believe many of the ancillary details presented in pure fiction, totally devoid of any fact.
For example, when you are watching the show Friends, you don’t believe that Rachel is a real person. You are aware that it’s Jennifer Aniston playing a role on TV, and that her character is named Rachel. But you might come to believe that peripheral information is true. For example, you might believe a waitress in Manhattan can afford a two-bedroom apartment near Central Park. Knowing that, if you are constantly reminded of the overnight success of musicians and never told about the work involved in their process, isn’t there a message here as well?
So, what does reality look like? My favorite example of someone who built their own business in music is the story of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the band’s label Daptone Records and the founder of the band and the label, a guy named Gabe Roth.
Until her 40s, Sharon Jones was a guard at a correctional facility. And I played with Gabe in a band for a few years at NYU. Many years later, he agreed to be interviewed on this site. The words, “So, how does it feel to be this overnight success” started to come out of my mouth, but I caught myself midway through, and we laughed about it. Gabe hadn’t done anything different for 15 years; he just got better at what he did and surrounded himself with better people. And it was a breakthrough moment for me when I realized just how long he had been at it. He had worked at the same thing with a narrow focus for 15 years non-stop and was finally at a point where he was making a good living doing what he loved. Persistence and consistency had won out.
Why aren’t we exposed to stories like this? Simply put, because they aren’t popular news stories. “Man Works for 15 Years and Gets Great Business” is not as compelling as “Justin Bieber puts Video on Internet, Becomes Multi-Millionaire.”
A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth determined that “stick-to-it-ness” is called “grit,” which she defines as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal.” And she discovered that this grit is more important than intelligence or talent as a predictor of outstanding achievement. Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time, despite experiences with failure and adversity.
In his interview with me, “The Self Made Musician,” Gabe (a person I believe has real grit) said something that really stuck with me: “Instead of looking inward and local and trying to create something small that they can build from and concentrating on their craft, [musicians] are shooting for stars. It’s like playing the lottery. It’s fun, and if you win it’s amazing, but it’s not a business plan. You don’t say, ‘Okay, we want to start a business and want $500,000. The first thing we’re going to do is buy $4,000 worth of scratcher tickets.’”
A good business plan for your music is, first and foremost, specific. People always talk about the “next level,” and it drives me absolutely insane. I don’t begrudge people for wanting to advance their careers, but my frustration is when I hear the term “next level,” I know that 95% of the time the person saying it hasn’t clearly defined what they need let alone what they want. It sounds like they’re looking for a Nintendo cheat code.
Vague goals tend not to manifest. If you want to achieve your goals as a musician, you need to get really specific and write out a business plan. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to write a business plan or if you believe that it’s only for raising money or that it requires fancy number-crunching graphs. Truthfully, a business plan can start off as simply just visualizing where you want your music to take you in the next six months. Most people never do it. And 90% of the people reading this will probably not do it.
Do you really know what you want and what you need? Try this: Write down a six-month or one-year goal and then work backwards to the present moment. Be mindful that you will need longer-term goals as well, but they need not be as detailed.
Don’t do this because I say so. Do this because several studies, including a study conducted by Palo Alto Software in 2010 that was verified by the University of Oregon Department of Economics states that you are twice as likely to succeed if you finish a business plan.
I can’t write down a plan that will work for every artist, but I can offer a few guidelines if you are devoted to music for life (and not just looking at it as a fun hobby):
- Build a solid business foundation. Figure out how money is made in this industry and how publishing works. Register with ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and SoundExchange. Make sure you have a business entity established and trademark your name.
- Get your marketing materials in order. You’re going to need at least a 4-song recording (and one that requires no apologies), a well-written bio, a logo, a professional photo and a video of you performing live (for an actual crowd). You’ll also need vanity URLs on social networks, a website and to make sure all your digital real estate is interconnected.
- Set yourself up for the long haul. You need to engage in long-term planning if you want to work as a musician. Most “normal” businesses are not in the black for three, to five years, so why should a music business be any different? If you are truly in this for life, you should be investing in your business in a way that ensures you are set up to play and record music and get it to people at a moment’s notice over an extended period of time. This could mean building a home studio and getting a P.A. and a van. The point is, you’re going to have to plan multiple releases over a number of years and be prepared to play countless gigs. And you’re going to need to know how to accomplish this as cheaply and easily as possible. Don’t blow all your money on your first release, expecting it will propel you instantly to financial stability. Plan on truly playing and recording music on an on-going basis.
- Build a community and diversify. The music, the money and “the hang” (who you seek out as collaborators and the other musicians with whom you surround yourself on a regular basis) determines which gigs you should take, even if they divert you from your original work – sideman work, apprenticeships, etc. Remember, even Hendrix was a sideman.
- Think about B2C and B2B. It is also important to consider that everyone is talking about direct-to-fan in the digital age – an obvious, unfiltered Business to Consumer strategy (B2C). As they are building their communities, I’m of the opinion that many fledgling artists should also pursue Business to Business (B2B) relationships with like-minded artists. If you convince one band with a 50-person mailing list in another town that you are worth a damn, you can get your music in front of those people and start to break a new market if you’re willing to do the same promotion for them on a gig trade.
In summary, the confusion and frustration you may be feeling about your music career is just part of the process. It just so happens it’s not part of the process that people really talk about. The media is feeding you a steady stream of crap about who, what and where you should be in your career. Try to tune that out along with the hundreds of burnt-out naysayers you will meet along your journey who tried, failed and now want to talk you out of trying, too. Amputate the people in your life with this cancerous attitude, consume less celebrity media, or at least remember to take it with a grain of salt.
And remember grit and what I hear more than anything else about marketing strategies: “I tried that, and it didn’t work.” No musician succeeds without trying and failing. Try again.